BWW Interview: Mariah Lotz of ONCE at AT&T Performing Arts Center
A slice of life in Ireland is coming to Dallas in a few short weeks, with a story appropriately warm and inviting this holiday season. ONCE THE MUSICAL comes stomping and swaying into the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center November 22-24. Based on the 2007 Academy Award-winning film of the same name, ONCE tells the story of Guy, an Irish singer-songwriter, and Girl, a Czech immigrant, as the two collaborate to create music that expresses their innermost thoughts and desires while uniting their small, lovable community. As the notes flow and love blossoms, audiences will find themselves being thrilled by this intimate yet exciting musical.
I talked with Mariah Lotz who plays Girl in the current national tour to talk about her experience with this one-of-a-kind musical and the unique challenge the show presents for all of its performers.
So correct me if I'm wrong, Mariah, but this is your first national tour, yeah?
ML: Correct, yes!
Congrats! So what has that experience been like for you especially with this show?
ML: Oh it's been really exciting. This has been a dream role of mine for a while, so to be able to do my first tour doing this role and doing this show has been absolutely phenomenal.
What is it that drew you to the role of Girl? What made you decide that this was a role you wanted to play someday?
ML: There's a few reasons. I think the first and most obvious one is that she plays piano, and I grew up playing classical piano, so it's exciting to be able to use that skill as an actor. To get into a character through playing a shared instrument. And then the role itself is just so well-written, so well-crafted. She's such a complexly human character, and it can be difficult to find female leading roles like that in musical theatre that are that complex and interesting. There's just so much to dig into with her.
Yeah, and I feel like a lot of people coming to see this show are maybe familiar with the movie. But it seems like, to me, the way Girl is written in the stage musical is so much more complex and humane. And the movie does that pretty well to start with, actually.
ML: I absolutely agree. Her story is told more clearly in the musical. They've also given so much more attention to the other female characters. Girl's mother is portrayed so much more complexly in the musical, and you get to see that relationship more. The musical just delves more deeply into Girl's darker backstory and gives the actress playing her so much more to dig into, to explore what motivates her.
Speaking of you being a professional piano player, what is it like preparing for a role like this where you're acting and you're playing piano at the same time, where you have to be so intensely committed to doing both while onstage? It's a demanding role unlike anything else touring or on Broadway.
ML: I had to get to the point where I had the music completely memorized to the point where I didn't have to think about it, because there's so much more I have to focus on while playing. Such as connecting to the other actors and singing and pulling off a Czech accent and doing all these things! But most of the piano music isn't all that difficult, so that makes the role slightly easier. But I still had to get my musical accompaniment to a place of comfortability so that I could really dig into the context of the role and these scenes without having to worry about the music so much.
And that honestly goes for everyone in the show. Every performer in this show not only plays an instrument but also plays a role that requires that degree of focus and commitment. Going through this process together has made it so much easier to figure out your relationship to each of these characters and how everyone informs the show and brings a different kind of energy to the stage.
And so many of these musical numbers are exciting and kind of raucous. But many of your pieces are softer, more intimate. How do you balance those different kinds of energy?
ML: It's really thrilling! One thing that one of the original songwriters who starred as Guy in the movie, Glen Hansard, shared with us was that-as a "busker" or as a street musician-you have to figure out how to make people stop and listen. And he figured out the best way to do that wasn't by playing too loudly or too softly but by shifting the dynamics within songs and between songs. So he incorporated that idea into the music for the movie which then transferred into the show; it became a theme for the entire musical. So audiences are going to really feel drawn into the show with those shifts in dynamics as well as the choreography which shifts from these really powerful ensemble dance numbers to small, intimate two-person scenes in the corner of the playing area. Night after night, I can feel that intensity pulling audiences in, and it makes for these really exciting moments.
On the topic of these smaller, more intimate scenes, I wanted to talk to you for a moment about your costar, Jack Gerhard, who plays Guy. What's it been like building that relationship? Because it's a love story of sorts but it's not exactly a conventional love story either.
ML: Yeah, I think what's been really challenging but really exciting for my character is discovering how she falls in love with him throughout the show. Because the script gives so many hints either through lyrics or movements, but the challenge is conveying that without making the attraction so obvious that Guy figures it out. Girl, as a character, doesn't like to project her feelings that obviously for a number of reasons.
What helps, though, is that Jack and I actually knew each other beforehand because we actually went to school together. So there was already a level of shared comfort even before we stepped into the rehearsal room together. We never felt any pressure to impress one another, so we could just dive in and experiment with these roles and their relationship to one another. And it was always just so much fun and exciting doing this kind of work with a friend and creating this piece of art together.
I would imagine that is tough. You're playing this guarded character, and-even if the other characters onstage aren't supposed to know what's going on-the audience still has to know what she's feeling and thinking.
ML: Exactly! Because the script keeps her feelings a little unclear, it offers you-as an actor-choices that you can experiment with. So the show never gets old. There's always something new from night to night that I can discover or try out, which is really fun.
I bet, especially with the atmosphere the show creates. Which I guess leads me to ask-and you've already answered this a little-what does this show mean to you? Especially as an actress beginning her career, pushing her career forward.
ML: Well, a big theme of the show is learning to not become "stuck" in your life, learning to push forward and being willing to take that next step toward following your dream, whether that involves music or a relationship or whatever it may be. And the show also is about relationships and the power of love, helping each other out and lifting each other up. It's such a complex show to sum up in a sentence or two, but above anything else it's about friendship and how the people in our lives have the power to transform us and we have the power to transform them. It makes me incredibly grateful for all the people that have pushed me forward.
ONCE is a very human show. It's not a show that wraps up perfectly with a bow or with a fairytale ending, but it's a show that people relate to. Like all of us, these are very flawed characters in a very complicated circumstance in which life gets in the way. So it's lovely and it's exciting to have a musical that, in spite of all these troubles and difficulties, reminds us how we carry each other along doing the best we can.